NYYS: Young Musicians Make History
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Most people in today’s world are familiar with the Grammys, a prestigious music award show that happens once a year. Though it’s primarily connected to pop stars like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, it should also be associated with classical music stars such as Anne-Sophie Mutter and Itzhak Perlman. For the first time in history, a group of teenagers managed to do just that, beating top musicians from all over the world.
The New York Youth Symphony (NYYS) Orchestra was founded in 1963 and is the backbone of the NYYS organization, which has since grown to encompass various other music programs. The ensemble includes students from ages 12 to 22, most of whom are teenagers. “I was doing an NYU summer strings program in the summer of my junior year, and my friend recommended NYYS,” NYYS cellist Noelia Carrasco said in an interview with The Spectator. Currently a cello performance major at NYU, Carrasco has played in the NYYS orchestra for four years.
Clarinetist and Juilliard freshman Joshua Choi believes that the NYYS orchestra program has been essential to helping his career and growth as a classical musician. The orchestra meets every Sunday from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m., performing at Carnegie Hall three times a year and with a repertoire including not just classics but also new compositions. Many of the students do not live in New York City, commuting from New Jersey once a week to rehearse. While some of them attend professional music schools—like The Juilliard School—and are considering a career in classical music, others end up pursuing other paths. “The most special part about NYYS to me is seeing the students grow and achieve amazing things, whether or not they do music [afterward],” NYYS director Shauna Quill said.
The idea of recording an album was born only after the pandemic hit. During the 2020 to 2021 season, the NYYS orchestra was unable to perform at Carnegie Hall. “We were all sitting at home, separated,” NYYS music director and conductor Michael Repper said. “What we were missing was some sense of unity, so we thought, if we couldn’t perform it, we should record it.” Repper had planned to perform Florence Price’s piano concerto at Carnegie Hall, so that was one of the first pieces to go on the recording program, along with Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja” (2019), which translates to “unity” in English. “Umoja” had never been recorded before, and two other pieces on the recording, Price’s “Ethiopian Shadows in America” and Jessie Montgomery’s “Soul Force” had never been recorded by an American orchestra before.
The project was challenging and required extensive communication with recording engineers and producers as well as the solving of complicated math problems about how to socially distance 40 string players in the recording room. “The winds and brass had to be at least 10 feet apart since they couldn’t be masked,” Quill said.
Before recording started, Repper gave the students click tracks to practice with at home, and they sent in recordings of themselves playing for feedback. “We listened to the click track and the strings while we were playing,” Choi said, describing the recording process.
“A lot of the time we didn’t know what the other parts sounded like or what the piece sounded like as a whole,” Carrasco said.
NYYS violinist Laura Tillack described the recording process as an unorthodox experience. “As young musicians, we had the opportunity to be a part of a professional recording project and work with top producers like Grammy-award winn[er] Judy Sherman,” Tillack said. “We also had to learn how to master the pieces in a way that allowed the groups to play with a consistent style and musical interpretation.”
The album was released on August 8, 2022. “When it finally came out, it felt like [our] baby,” Quill joked.
It topped the billboard charts very quickly, and the directors of NYYS thought it would be worth it to submit the recording to the Grammys—however, they did not expect much from it at the time. “We wanted it to be received very well, get good reviews,” Repper shared. “All of this extra attention that this album [has] gotten was secondary.”
The Grammy award nomination for Best Orchestral Recording was announced in the fall of 2022, surprising everyone in NYYS. Quill remembers that the NYYS staff had been holding a watch party in their offices; when their album was nominated, she practically jumped out of herseat. “It was my most professional-looking moment,“ Quill joked.
Both Carrasco and Choi recalled finding out the news as they were scrolling through Instagram and feeling disbelief. “Just being up for the nomination already meant a lot,” Carrasco said.
Repper and Quill attended the Grammys with a small group of NYYS staff. “It was a ton of fun,” Repper said. For the Best Orchestral Recording award, NYYS was up against four other world-famous, historical ensembles, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic.
“When they started announcing the other famous names, I thought, there’s just no way, we cannot win this,” Quill recalled. “Ten seconds later, they started saying “Works by… and I was so completely floored.”
Back at the DiMenna Center, where the NYYS orchestra regularly rehearsed, the students were watching the Grammys on TV together. When the award was given to NYYS, “everyone just screamed and jumped up,” Carrasco said.
“I think it was an incredible moment for everybody,” NYYS violinist Andrew Park reflected.
Repper revealed that he did not actually prepare an acceptance speech. “What I spoke about was just the message of what we’re trying to do: as professional musicians, we have a responsibility to look out for young people and to try to foster the next generation,” Repper explained. The NYYS album did just that. Aside from granting the NYYS musicians, conductors, and staff their undeniably well-deserved moment of fame and glory, it provided the young musicians with an experience they will never forget. Repper shared that it has been very exciting to see more youth programs take on recording projects, “not necessarily to win a Grammy but because teaching young people how to record is a critical part of preparing them for a career in music.”
The success of the NYYS album is a testament to the perseverance and hard work of 70 young musicians who came together during the pandemic because of their passion for making music. They will be playing their next concert at Carnegie Hall in just a few weeks, and they continue to meet every Sunday, approaching orchestral music-making with limitless energy and a collaborative spirit. “As a young musician just starting out in my musical career, the experience of playing in NYYS is something I will always cherish,” Carrasco said.